Here is the fundamental question: If there is not a Web site for it, does it exist?
In my world of policy wonk overachievers, the answer seems to be no. Almost nothing happens in the public sphere without an accompanying URL directing you to many pages of text, photos and increasingly, video. A governor announces a new program--a new Web site is the place to go for all the details. A major news story breaks--pictures, text and video are updated hourly on a brand new site. Thanks to wildly popular social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, even the intensely personal aspects of life become available to anyone with Web access.
So it is not a surprise when even a rather unexciting government agency such as the IRS creates a new Web site. Still, perhaps muted plaudits are due the agency's office of Exempt Organizations (EO) for stepping outside the safe boundaries of simply converting dishwater dull instruction booklets to HTML or PDF files and calling it an online resource. A bit of originality in the EO office is evident in its new site at www.stayexempt.org, which contains a lot of information for tax-exempt organizations about how they can maintain their exemptions and meet their filing requirements.
First, the domain name itself is descriptive. Too many government Web sites have URLs as intuitively obvious as Anglo Saxon runes: www.irs.gov/def.340*!/qwerty/faq.but.not.so/really. Obviously, somebody in the office gave some thought to how people use their browsers and insisted on a separate home page for the "Stay Exempt" project instead of burying it somewhere in the www.irs.gov site where users would have to click five or six times to find it. That decision alone increases the site's effectiveness.
Second, the site's designers opted to engage the user with a bit of entertainment--a very little bit--as it tries to convey a lot of basic tax information through a series of five modules, each focusing on a different aspect of the tax-exempt sector. Believe it or not, the site contains a bit of animation featuring cartoon characters such as Vernon, a volunteer for a charity. He actually talks to you as he introduces the first module on tax-exempt status. Later, you meet several other characters, including Coach, "a brilliant, straight-talking IRS agent," who articulates points of law. As you progress through each course you are presented with a few dynamic elements such as a click-and-drag exercise to match up types of organizations with their exemption categories. There is even a (rather clunky) take-off on the Candyland children's board game, called Charitable Organization Land. The graphics are barely a step ahead of the old Atari computer games, and the primitive effects would embarrass a gamer. But the IRS deserves credit for making an effort to engage users.
In addition to the module on exemption, there are four others on unrelated business income, employment issues, Form 990 and required disclosures. Each module is described as a "dynamic" mini-course on the law and takes about half an hour to complete. At nearly each step of each course there is a link taking you directly to the applicable IRS form
StayExempt.org will not win any design awards. But, it is useful for non-profit lawyers who want to refresh their recollection of the law and for any charity executive who wants quick and easy access to the basics and downloadable forms. Regardless of your rank in the non-profit, the site will let you print out your own official-looking Certificate
of Completion. I'm thinking of getting mine framed.
Bruce Collins is the corporate vice president and general counsel of C-SPAN.